During the course of researching this article a political consultant took me aside during a dinner with one of his influential friends and asked me if I might consider running for a local office.
"You'll win, we'll make sure of it," he said with absolute assurance. "You'd just have to give up your whole life as you know it."
The assumption was that since I am a native Nuyorican, lived in a primarily Latino district, was reasonably articulate and had a grasp of the issues that confronted my potential constituents, plus the backing of influential party machinery, I had as good a chance as anybody to win. This demographic reality has resulted in the fact that there are now 33 Latino elected officials in New York City, and there's no reason to think that the number will not continue to increase.
But that increase may come in the absence of—or even at the expense of—real power.
This summer Angelo Falcón, founder and president of the National Institute of Latino Policy and one of the chief gadflies on the New York Latino political scene, stirred up a major controversy when he released a missive entitled "A Boricua Game of Thrones?: A Critical Review of the Rise of Puerto Rican Families in New York City." His analysis questions why despite Latinos' growing numbers, the community's political power and ability to influence policy (outside of the immigrants' rights movement) are on the wane.
"You don't get a real sense of unity and you don't get a sense of anybody really rising to the level where they're really respected politically," said Falcón in an interview. He also addressed the perhaps disproportionate perception of Latino politicians as scandal-tainted. "And then in the backdrop you have crooks. Some folks think it's just a matter of time where they all turn into crooks."
Many forces, plus four amigos
In his essay Falcón touched on ideas raised by Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco's book Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which discusses the way marginalized communities are forced into "sacrifice zones" or "internal colonies." José Sánchez described a parallel phenomenon in a recent article called "The Planned Shrinkage of Latino Political Power in New York City," where he ties the depopulation of Latino communities to their loss of political heft.
There are many loosely related theories about the fragmentation of political power that are described in these essays: Outmigrating Puerto Rican and other Latino middle class constituents have been replaced by an un-rooted new group of constantly shifting populations. Community-based organization and the leftist activists who created them have become increasingly professionalized and out of touch with the community. The Latino political class has been marginalized by the liberal white establishment through its domination of the Democratic Party. Sánchez even argues that the replacement of working-class tenant renters by increasingly conservative homeowners in what were once simmering urban ghettoes has led to the suburbanization of Latino politicians' political agendas.
All of these factors have been compounded, according to Falcón, by a long-standing cynicism about the Latino political class, one increasingly characterized by the spectacular rise and fall of what became known as "The Four Amigos." In 2008, State Senators Pedro Espada, Jr., Hiram Monserrate, Ruben Diaz, Sr. and one non-Latino, Carl Krueger, engaged in a highly unusual political maneuver by refusing to back Senator Malcolm Smith for Senate majority leader right after their party won dominance after four decades of Republican control. Their stated reason was that Latino lawmakers needed a greater voice in government.
In a sense, Espada, Monserrate, and Diaz, Sr. were addressing long-held concerns that white liberal Democrats had taken Latinos for granted and had continuously marginalized them in the corridors of power. But the Four Amigos' actions, carried out by a raucous social conservative and two relatively new electeds, created the worst fracture in black-Latino unity since perhaps the Harlem Democrats vs. Badillo scuffle, and the coup ended without any measurable positive effect.
Even worse, Monserrate and Kruger have both since been sentenced to prison, and Pedro Espada was convicted in a federal corruption trial over embezzlement of funds from a non-profit health corporation he administered. "What makes the group stand out," writes Sánchez, "is not so much what they did before they came into office but rather their tenuous connection to the dominant Democratic Party in the city during their rise to and stay in office. Each was essentially marginal to the Democratic political apparatus. And though each was able to garner enough public support to get elected, the support did not come with any stable or organized community, labor, and party organization. Ultimately, this made them not only weak but also unaccountable to the public interest."
Nor were Espada and Monserrate the only Latino leaders to allegedly run afoul of the law. Councilmember Maria del Carmen Arroyo of the Bronx was accused of illegally paying her husband from public campaign funds. Councilman Miguel Martinez went to prison for faking campaign spending records. State Senator Efrain Gonzalez—Espada's predecessor—admitted to running a fake nonprofit.
Plenty of non-Latino politicians—Kruger, Councilman Larry Seabrook, Assemblyman William Boyland and others—have stood accused of corruption in recent years. The difference is their communities have already made it politically.
"I think Latino politicians do nothing different from the other politicians but I would say this: Maybe in rich white communities or middle-class communities the politicians can steal and rob and all that but in poorer communities we can't afford that," says Bronx lawyer Ramón Jiménez, a frequent candidate and a longtime critic of the Bronx machine. "We can't afford to have representatives that steal, rob and take money that's supposed to go to the community."
What's more, misdeeds by Latino politicians taint their brethren more directly through the family networks that dominate Latino politics, at least in the Bronx.
A family affair
There are four prominent "families" in the Bronx: the Serranos (José, U.S. Representative, and José Jr., State Senator); the Diazes (Ruben Sr., State Senator; Ruben Jr., Bronx beep), the Arroyos (Carmen, State Assemblywoman, and Maria del Carmen, City Council) and the Riveras (José, State Assembly; Joel, City Council and Naomi, who recently lost an Assembly re-election bid). Among other things, Falcón discloses that of the 16 Latino elected officials in the Bronx, nine are related—an astonishing 56 percent, belying comparisons with other political families in the U.S.
The central figure assailed in Falcón's analysis is patriarch José Rivera. Having been in office since 1982, he has developed, according to Falcón "a strong patronage base, leading some to refer to it as his personal ‘employment agency.' The tapping of his two children to represent overlapping areas of the Bronx would seem to be part of this effort."
Falcón identifies Rivera as "the key figure in the family phenomenon" which was enabled by the term limits legislation of 2001. Forced to cede his City Council seat, Rivera put up his 22-year-old son Joel, who was still in college, to run for it. Joel Rivera defeated Bronx activist Edwin Ortiz in a special election, the Democratic primary, and the general election that year.
For his part, Rivera sent the following response to Falcón: "I didn't make Joel and Naomi politicians, I only fathered them. It was Roberto Ramirez who asked Joel to run and it was Jeff Klein who asked Naomi to run. I was against it, but Jeff Klein said, 'Why should a father deny a daughter the benefit from his work.' True story. My friend Roberto Ramirez might also say to you that Joel became a politician after his father helped to make just about everyone in politics in The Bronx elected officials some 20 years in between. You just don't want us to do what white people started on their way up in politics."
Rivera's reference to Roberto Ramirez is significant. A legendary kingmaker who enabled Rivera to serve as the chairman of the Bronx Democratic Committee between 2002 and 2008, Ramirez brought a Latino version of machine politics to the region, helping to both consolidate and define Latino political power in the city. But soon after getting Rivera elected Bronx boss in 2002, Ramirez went off to become a founding partner in the lobbying and PR firm MirRam Group with former Hispanic Federation head Luis Miranda.
Ramirez, like many political power brokers, is admired for amassing influence, but not particularly understood as someone who set agendas or pushed through a vision that would unite Latinos for any reason other than to consolidate that power. His move to create MiRam with Miranda is seen as a natural progression toward cashing in on that power and influence, and being the go-to consultancy for pols looking to attract Latino voters, like 2009's mayoral runner-up, Bill Thompson.
"Roberto Ramirez was a transitional figure generationally," says Hunter College professor Carlos Vargas. "He was between the pioneer generation and the Nuyorican generation. What happened when he stepped out? There was really nobody from the second generation to take over. So it went back to the pioneer generation, dominated by José Rivera, with a lot of influence by Carmen Arroyo. There was still this feeling about going back to traditional politics then of ethnic succession, that says 'We have this amount of power, we're going to squeeze it for as much as we want.' "
Again, the complaint that elected officials are merely engaged in activities to consolidate their power bases and continuously ensure their re-election is repeated among many advocates seeking better political outcomes for the Latino community. Jiménez, who ran for state senator in the Bronx as far back as 1978, says it's a process of slow but inevitable estrangement between politico and the community.
"When José Rivera started, before he was an assemblyman, he worked for the gypsy cab drivers, also [advocated for] construction [jobs] through United Tremont Trades (an organization he founded) trying to get jobs for blacks and Latinos. He was involved in the Charlotte Street stuff when Jimmy Carter wasn't around," says Jiménez. "He would always be around demonstrations and pickets and when he got elected to office slowly but surely he began to focus on getting jobs for his families and friends, trying to control the whole agenda and Ramirez handed the ball over to him."
Rivera's critics cite his relationship with lawyer Stanley Schlein as evidence of the assemblyman's links—despite his fondness for baseball cap and jeans over suit and tie—to the establishment. Schlein, once a lawyer for Stanley Friedman, a former Bronx Democratic leader who got into a monster scandal of his own during the Koch administration that in effect opened the door for Ferrer's rise to power, was one of the authors of the community benefits agreement for the new Yankee Stadium that has alienated so many local activists and may have tainted potential mayoral candidate Adolfo Carrión.
Carrión was earlier considered a promising potential Democratic Latino candidate for mayor, but when he left office in 2009 to run the Obama administration's new White House Office of Urban Affairs and then serve as regional HUD director, he all but faded from view. Although regarded highly by many as intelligent and personable, he has been accused by activists of selling out the interests of the Bronx in the Yankee Stadium deal.
Last year he was fined $10,000 by the City's Conflicts of Interest Board for hiring an architect to design the porch for his home on City Island. The same architect was involved in a Bronx development, called Boricua Village, which required Carrión's approval.
It's pretty clear to everyone outside of the families' sphere of influence that surrendering to machine politics—even though there's not much of a machine left, just a fragmented array of "families"—only reproduces a model that Latinos, as a community, cannot tolerate. "Take U.S. Representative José Serrano," says Borrero. "You can't just put your son in for State Senate. There's not concern for building leaders for the future."
It's also out of touch with the reality that ethnic politics has changed. Ironically enough, the problem with the Family Politics of the Bronx is that it has no children. It doesn't produce the kind of new hopefuls likely to win something meaningful in today's city.